Eight countries border the landlocked nation of Zambia — Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Angola, the DR Congo, and Tanzania — and all but one is locked tighter than a steel drum.
That one open border is good ol’ coronavirus-denying Tanzania. With a presidential election in October, the government elected to stop reporting COVID-19 cases clear back in April. No one has a clear idea what the disease is doing to the Tanzanians, not even the U.S. Consulate Office, who asked me again to “come visit another time.” I’m in no rush. Tanzania isn’t going anywhere.
Of course there’s another door out of Zambia. That’s through the airport in the capital city, Lusaka, on an overpriced flight to the USA. Surrender would mean the Two-Wheeled Wanderer saga stops. I, for one, certainly don’t want to see the Wanderer meet that ignominious end.
This “leaving” business is all talk. After some unsuccessful bluffs, I capitulated and paid $165 in immigration fees to Zambia’s Ministry of Home Affairs. They’ve granted me a three-month working permit. That, along with my burgeoning Chitenge shirt collection and the accidental buzzcut, has me feeling more Zambian than ever.
I’m staying. For now, we are just too busy, and too happy, building a legacy in Livingstone.
“We” is the key word there. I’m not alone anymore. Through a stream of serendipity, I landed a job constructing a science laboratory at Libuyu, a public school on Livingstone’s vulnerable East Side. I’m now in the company of a skilled crew, a top-notch team of school administrators, around 1,000 students, plus around 50 generous supporters from the Idaho Press readership.
In early July, we resumed work on a concrete shell of s structure, which was all but abandoned three years ago for lack of funds. Now, at the end of July, a 3,300-square-foot science laboratory has taken shape. It’s built like a Sherman tank, with two large classrooms, two small offices, and a sturdy steel roof overhead.
My wandering days are now spent wandering in, out, and around a construction site. Rather than dwell on that, let’s walk through a few moments in this Livingstoner life.
I’ve had a great many job commutes, because I’ve had a great many jobs. Nowadays I wake early, digest some news, dress and caffeinate and make my way to work, as it was every time before.
Difference is, this time I don’t get paid, I do the paying. I show up at random times. I don’t take orders. I don’t even have to give orders. I only make sure I’m visible, sporadically, the right mix of likable and intimidating, out there eyeballin’ the numbers whilst monitoring the materials.
On the six-mile cycle trek from my house to the Libuyu School, I pass kids selling shelled peanuts for 1 kwacha per bag; I stop and pick up 10 bags for 55 cents. I wave at ladies selling nothing but fresh scones and used stilettos. Dart in and out of lanes like a Manhattan bicycle courier, then whip onto the main street and play a little chicken in the beeping horns of morning rush hour traffic.
It’s the dead of winter down here. Locals, bundled in heavy coats and scarves, say they can’t remember it ever being so cold. Morning temperatures are often in the low 40s. Zambians are tough people, but cool weather is not their forté.
Turning my bicycle and charging up a steady grade, once in awhile I can reach out and grab onto a passing delivery truck. Maybe snag a steel hook or a strap hanging out the back. Once, in the side-view mirror, I met the driver’s eyes. He looked nervous, flashed a little annoyance even. Then, in a flurry of fist pumps, he’s having almost as much fun as me.
Release my grip, peel away and take a swooping turn to the right, onto Obote Avenue, downhill now, flying past a lime green Mosque, a unique island in a sea of Christianity.
Over the train tracks. The rails never fail to provide a whiff of romance. There’s a passenger train to Lusaka, not operating now due to coronavirus restrictions. The locals, not one is a princess, tell me it’s a rough ride. That sounds like a dare for another day.
Pedestrians and pedalers on both sides of the road. Bikes packed to the sky with cargo. Bundles, baskets, buckets, boxes balanced on their heads. Zambians think nothing of walking for hours.
This time of year, the forecast never changes. Daily highs in the mid 70s, the only advisories are cool breezes and severe clear.
Passing the mayhem of the Maramba Market, I jump off the tar and onto the dirt, dodging potholes through the dust. Take a sharp, deep breath, then a long slow exhale as I pass through those billowing clouds of auto exhaust. Always managing to keep the rubber side down; often reminding myself I’m not the master bike-handler I imagine myself to be.
Across a crowded, narrow, one-lane bridge over the Maramba River, running low until rainy season in December, no guard rails. I’m drafting a taxi, printed on the rear window, “There is Power in the Blood of Jesus.”
Children smiling and shouting, “MZUNGU!” which means nothing more than “white guy.” The way they exclaim it, you’d think we were superheroes.
At last, a snap right turn into the Libuyu School. No parking lots. No tennis courts. No manicured grass in the fields. Just school buildings, latrines, fruit trees, a farm, and dirt.
At the job site I toss those peanut bags to the crew. They gobble ‘em up. Men believe peanuts enhance their virility. I admire their work, marvel aloud at the productivity, take some photos, pull up a seat. Stretch a bit. Push-ups and handstands, too.
This site differs from every other construction site I’ve ever known in one big way. There’s no electricity now. No scream of circular saws, only the “brummmfff, brummmfff” rumble of hand saws and panting men. No churning of cement mixers, only shovels and stirring, arms working. No radio, either, no classic rock, only young men chit-chatting in their native tongue, Tonga.
“Ted, what do you think of this Corona? We Zambians are made of the best stuff. We are vaccinated more than anyone. God protects Zambia. Blessings!”
I never know how to respond to coronavirus doubters.
I enjoy construction work, but I don’t actually work here. Mostly, I just do my best to stay out of the way.
Back in town, lunchtime, I spot the statue of the famous Briton, David Livingstone, namesake of all Livingstoners. Regular readers may recall I was a critic. Over the past four months in Zambia, I’ve made my peace with the guy.
My beef with Livingstone was threefold. One, he called himself an “explorer” even though the Native tribes already had this region thoroughly explored. Two, he changed the Natives’ name of Mosi-oa-Tunya, the gigantic waterfall, to “Victoria Falls,” in honor of the monarchy from his home country. Three, he converted everyone to Christianity, supplanting all their traditional spirituality for the righteous glory of the Church of England.
All that seemed to me like raw British imperial arrogance.
However, the historical records show Livingstone wrote prolifically, with sincere care for Africans. He was nothing like most of his contemporaries.
Take Edward Colston, for example. A hard-core white supremacist, Colston became fabulously wealthy as the founder of the Royal African Company, which held the monopoly on a million humans sold into the slave trade, shipped in chains to posts throughout the Americas, an historical atrocity on par with the Third Reich’s holocaust.
Or take Cecil Rhodes, namesake of all Rhodes Scholars and another British imperial all-star. Among other exploits, Rhodes founded DeBeers, the diamond company, making his vast fortune on the backs of southern African labor, at the same time managing to fool a century of American consumers into the cultural necessity of diamond wedding rings.
We can grade history on a curve. Livingstone was … relatively okay. A stepping stone, perhaps. I’d even say he is owed a debt, in part, for his contribution to the modern-day character of Zambia.
The first Monday in July is Heroes’ Day, which celebrates the many who were lost in Zambia’s long struggle for independence from British colonial power. Most government operations and many businesses were closed.
In 1964, the year Zambians achieved independence, there were less than 100 university graduates in a nation of millions.
That’s a major contrast to the American Revolution of 1776. The struggle for U.S. independence was really one group of wealthy, white, educated, landowning men taking some power away from similar men over in Britain.
As I see it, that’s more of a Re-Organization than a Revolution. If you were anything less than a wealthy white landowner, there wasn’t much of a “Revolution” at all.
In Zambia, and virtually everywhere else in Africa, the liberated colonies did not have such a luxurious foundation from which to begin building their country. Today, Zambians seem united in an effort to advance, to make up for stolen time. The ambition is palpable. I’ve seen many shops and vehicles with upbeat slogans like “WORK HARD” stenciled on the windows. I’ve met many erudite dreamers in search of expanded skill sets.
The softwood forms that create the trench for the concrete and rebar, which give structure and shape the ring beam, were set. We have since filled it with wet concrete. It will harden overnight.
Musanza means “Southern” in the Tonga tongue. It’s also the name of a brewery for sale.
On a break from construction, I cycled over to meet Mr. Mwiya Maliwa, the bright light at Musanza. The brewers aren’t brewing. The facility has been mothballed for months. Nevertheless, it didn’t take a charm offensive to talk him into guiding me on a special tour.
Trucks, warehouses, silos, two cookers, one converter, plus four fermenters, each tank with a 15,000-liter capacity, together turning out an opaque brew. This facility has some serious capacity.
This isn’t barley and hops, though. This is corn beer! White maize, sorghum malt, and yeast, all grown locally.
Corn beer is usually associated with the high Peruvian Andes, where indigenous people call it Chicha. I caught wind of it once in Mexico’s rugged Sierra Madre, too, where the cave-brewed Tesgüino beer ferments naturally in clay pots, then quenches the thirst of those Tarahumara ultra-endurance runners. In some cultures, corn beer has long been an elixir, a barter item, and a sacred beverage, on top of its traditional applications in helping folks get sloppy.
Curious for a taste, I managed to locate a bottle in spite of Musanza Brewery sitting idle. A jug of Chibuku set me back 7 kwacha, or 38 cents.
In the late day sun, I cracked it open, poured a cup, and took a swig. That’s some serious swill for sure. Too bad you weren’t here with me. You could’ve had the rest all for yourself.
The next morning, the stonemasons arrived, working their trowels, flopping wet concrete in place, setting the first row of bricks above the ring beam. Levels in-hand, too, keeping it straight and plumb all the way around. On top of that, they’ll build triangles of brick at each end, and on the walls in between the two classrooms. Those triangles will form the pitch of the roof.
In another construction diversion, I received an invite to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. As a religious independent, I find it all interesting.
This one was delivered in Tonga and English, to a packed house in a simple brick church decorated with colorful fabrics, and what a show of stories and song! One reason I wear my COVID-19 mask: people can’t tell I’m not singing. After a few hours, just as I was starting to doze off, the pastor called me up to give an impromptu speech before the congregation. I offered no prepared remarks, only pleasant platitudes. The response was crickets. They seemed totally underwhelmed by the Mzungu. I returned silently to my bench, my shoes audibly squeaking. They returned to song.
Back in the pews, a tiny lady squeezed in right next to me. Softly she said, “I’m pregnant and the father denies the baby. I have no one. I need work. Don’t you need a woman to take care of you? No? Can you please give me a job.”
“I’m sorry, my dear, I have no work to offer.”
She persisted, never asking for a handout, only a job. I whispered my idea in her ear.
“Show up at 9 hours on Monday morning at Libuyu School, and I’d pay you 50 kwacha for three hours of construction cleanup. Please keep quiet about it! I want to help out, but I just can’t give a thousand jobs.”
She arrived a half hour early, with another woman in tow. Holding my ground, I explained I could only pay 50 kwacha, total, for the two. They went right to work anyway, cleaning the project inside and out. Heavy bits of busted-up cinderblock strewn everywhere. Stacking. Sweeping. Hauling.
Three hours later they’ve cranked it up and buffed it out. I presented each woman with 50 kwacha. They exchanged excited glances. That $2.75 each goes a lot further than you might guess.
The trick to helping out in Africa isn’t to come here and extract the resources and exploit the people and then leave with a fortune. It’s to steward the resources and employ the people, but then stick around, living modestly in materials while living large in life.
Zambians have all the character to become a high-functioning, intellectual society, but with less of the “diseases of excess” that I sometimes think plague the consumerist societies.
Here’s a difficult question to ponder: Exactly how much is enough without it becoming too much? How can we create an ethos of ability and achievement without Bob Barker’s “The Price is Right” culture? “C’MON DOWN!,” just without expecting “A NEW CAR!” and “Your Own Showcase Showdown!”
The roof is taking shape. The crew completed the custom steel truss system. I had to hold a talk about welding with only sunglasses as eye protection. Austin the head welder says “my eyes get used to it,” which is a painful thing to hear. I made clear, eyes are not like muscles. They don’t get stronger with stress. We’re wearing proper welding goggles now.
There’s a young man swinging a pickax into the hard earth at the entrance to Libuyu School. He got in a fight the other day. The parents met with Headmaster Chaambwa, and together they agreed he’ll serve some hard labor during recess breaks. Where he breaks sod, there will soon be flowers.
Many Zambians are named with nouns or adjectives. There’s Trust here working in our crew, but I’ve also met Bold, Bright, and Beauty. Three ladies called Precious, all of them pretty, not one is a princess.
Out back, there’s a giant old Miombo tree. During recess, a student bolted out, reached down for a stone, and hurled it up into the highest branches. I thought maybe he lost a ball, or maybe he was harassing a critter. In fact he was just knocking down some ripe fruit. He scooped some up and dashed off before I figured all this out.
That wild fruit is a Nchenje. I picked one up off the ground. Round, it tastes like a sugar plum, about the size of a big grape, with a thicker skin and a good-sized pit inside. The more yellow the skin, the sweeter the taste. Nchenje has been keeping Sub-Saharan Africans alive since forever.
The man who taught me about the Miombo tree and the Nchenje fruit is Musa Nyirongo, Deputy Headmaster here at Libuyu School. He’s the smoothest dude among a whole staff of smooth dudes and dudettes.
Musa means “Moses” in Arabic. Musa Nyirongo sometimes wears a white taqiyah, or kufi cap. Less than 1% of Zambians identify as Muslim.
“Hey Musa. In the USA, unfortunately, some Muslims aren’t always comfortable. In Zambia, do you ever experience anyone who makes you feel unwelcome?”
Without hesitation, Musa cooly replies, “Never.”
The Livingstone Mosque is just a mile away. The air near there occasionally fills with the “call to prayer.” Months back, I picked up a Qu’ran from a street vendor and took up a little study for study’s sake. There are a lot of characters in common with the Bible, such as, Moses. Jesus Christ makes a few cameo appearances, too.
Not that I understand any of it.
Consider how Catholics and Protestants spent a lot of time at odds with each other, largely over cultural and theological differences.
Muslims and Christians are a bit like that, only wider. Instead of being two minor branches off the same theological branch, they are in fact just two big branches off the same Abrahamic trunk.
Anyway, Musa invited me to the midday Mosque, and I must say it was awesome. There in his elegant robe, Imam Shyuab was one of the most charismatic religious leaders I’ve met. He even introduced “the American so welcome among us,” in his booming voice.
Before entering, at a neatly tiled row of communal faucets, we ritually washed my hands, arms, face, ears, nostrils and feet, right side first where applicable.
There in the big room, barefoot, sitting neatly on a rectangular carpet, next to my man Musa, I frankly enjoyed Imam Shyuab’s sermon, what I could understand anyway. Out of the corner of my eye, I followed Musa’s moves; sitting, standing, kneeling. The stretching felt great. When they were kneeling in prayer, I almost shifted into a familiar yoga pose.
These were cool people. Almost everyone was wearing a COVID mask. Nobody asked for money. I’d definitely go again. They must’ve liked me enough, because I’ve been invited to join the Eid al Adha day, as part of this year’s Hajj.
Assalamu Alaikum! (May Peace Be Upon You!)
Over the last week in July, the crew finished securing the corrugated metal sheets on the laboratory roof. The fundamental structure is complete. We transition to plumbing and electric now, and it’s looking like the budget will allow solar. This laboratory is as real as it gets. We get ‘er done.
In the meantime, while I’ll never know what it’s like to be an African-American, I am getting a sense for what it’s like to be an American-African. It’s pretty darn good.